10 February 2012

troubling waters

As you may know, I'm enamored of New Orleans. I love the buildings, cultural diversity, food, tawdriness, and just the general feel of the city. I even went down there for a week in December just because I wanted to be there and to see the Prospect.2 biennial. I've also been watching Treme, the HBO series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. My first time in New Orleans was in 1980 just as I was coming out as gay so the city has an important part in my personal story.

Last night, I watched Trouble the Water, a 2008 documentary focusing on the story of a couple who happened to make a video of the Katrina moment and find the documentary filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin. Their efforts blend into a compelling story that says much about historic discrimination as well as promise. Educational and employment opportunities have long been slim for black people in New Orleans.

All of these swirling thoughts about New Orleans surfaced earlier this week when I went to a program on the Flood of 1972 at the David A. Howe Public Library in Wellsville, not far from Alfred. The 1972 flood was caused by Hurricane Agnes which came up across the Florida panhandle through the Carolinas and back out to sea before coming back ashore across Long Island while a cyclone came up along to the West. Up to 19 inches of rain fell in a few days in western New York and Pennsylvania. The flooding was pretty bad and Corning (50 miles East of us) took a particularly bad hit.

In the question and answer period at the program, I asked the speaker -- Courtney Waters, a young hydrologist -- what she could say to compare the stories we hear about the 1972 flood and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She sighed and said "Oh, New Orleans." She went on to talk about how Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane and that New Orleans is 100 feet below sea level. I have also read that none of New Orleans is actually below sea level. Admittedly, the city is close to sea level and there's not much elevation shift in the region. I mentioned that we saw pictures of horrible mold and mud. A couple people in the audience also commented about how people had worked hard to clean up the city and there seemed to be an implicit statement that the folks of New Orleans hadn't worked hard at cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina. No recognition of the massive evacuation, leaving only the really desperate or higher grounders behind.

I couldn't seem to help myself from thinking that there was perhaps some hidden racism in the comments. You know, white folks up here, we work hard and help our neighbors. I'm probably reading too much into it but it also seems to be reflected in some of the criticism of President Obama.

Perhaps a more viable comparison to Katrina would be to Corning where the flood waters filled the valley rather than rushing past and doing their damage quickly. I haven't checked on that but know that the Corning Museum of Glass was significantly damaged in the Flood of 1972.

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